Akutagawa Prize #127: Park Life, by Yoshida Shūichi

Yoshida Shûichi 吉田修一. Park Life パーク・ライフ. 2002.

Winner of the 127th A-Prize, for early 2002.

This struck me as being in the Murakami Haruki mode, maybe by way of Shimada Masahiko. Breezy, modish style, with lots of urban name-dropping, but with deep wells of sensitivity just beneath the detachment. The Shimada Masahiko element comes from the feeling that a carefully mapped-out symbolic situation is the real engine here, rather than the intense identification with the narrator’s perspective that tends to be the mark of Haruki’s fiction (for me at least).

It’s a puzzling story, with hints, not quite of magical surrealism, but at least of strangeness; this, too, is the Murakami/Shimada element.

It’s told by an unnamed male narrator, an employee of a cosmetics company who spends his lunch hours in Hibiya Park. As the story starts he sort of accidentally speaks to a stranger on the subway, a woman, and later he runs into her in the park. Turns out she spends a lot of time there, too. They meet there several times, and the story always seems to threaten to turn into a love story, but never does; they never even learn each other’s names. In the end, though, she takes him to a photography exhibit featuring her hometown, a small town in Akita; he, it turns out, has heard of the place through a Sims-like game he plays. This leads her to announce that she’s decided something, but what it is is never explored, because the story ends there.

What else do we learn about the guy? He’s single, and hasn’t had a girlfriend in ages; still sort of carries a torch for someone he knew in school. At the time of the story he’s housesitting for some friends who are going through a trial separation; he’s taking care of their pet monkey, Lagerfeld. Meanwhile his mother is up from the country, staying at his apartment. To get from his place to the place he’s housesitting he has to cross Komazawa Park. So it’s a tale of two parks.

Not much happens. The narration sort of meanders through reflections on parks; he and she meet another Hibiya Park aficionado, an old guy who’s working on a way to send a camera up in a balloon to give him an aerial view of the park. There’s also the recurring motif of internal organs: he first meets the woman when, on a stopped train, they both end up staring at an ad for organ transplants; later he finds himself paging through a book of da Vinci’s anatomical sketches; he also finds some anatomy dolls in an antique shop and debates buying them; finally he gets this vision of how Hibiya Park could be likened to the internal anatomy of a person, with the various pathways being intestines, different meadows and ponds being organs, etc.

What does it all add up to? Well, there’s an obvious helping of the alienated, isolated urbanite: he meets this woman several times but never feels comfortable asking her name; he at first tells the woman he’s been to her hometown, before realizing it wasn’t him, but his Sim; there’s the spectacle of the couple he’s housesitting for, drifting helplessly toward divorce. But in spite of that it’s not a particularly downbeat story; rather, because of all the sitting around on sunny days in parks, it’s actually pretty idyllic in tone.

Maybe asking what it means is too simplistic. As a reading experience, it’s moving, even if you don’t know what it’s moving you toward. The style is pleasant and the scenes are well constructed; the characters are mostly surfaces, but they’re intriguing surfaces. The details of their personalities, or rather their situations, are well-chosen – the monkey’s name, for example, and the way it links in with the fashion-world occupation of the separated couple, and indeed of the narrator himself. The conversations are hooky, even if they’re often aimless: discussions about the kind of women who hang out in Starbucks in Tokyo, for example.

The other story, “flowers” (titled in English), is not quite as accomplished. It involves a narrator, Ishida, from the countryside who moves to Tokyo with his wife. He gets work at a company that stocks soda machines (weird coincidence with Itô Takami?), while his wife tries to make it as a stage actress. Ishida’s partner, Mochizuki, is a bit over-gregarious as he tries to befriend Ishida; this culminates in Mochizuki trying to ensnare Ishida in a threesome with the wife of a coworker. This kind of freaks Ishida out (that’s lit-crit jargon). This coworker, Nagai, leads us to the ending. He’s always being bullied by the boss; this culminates in a scene in the company’s communal shower where the boss tries to humiliate Nagai, Mochizuki piles on, and Ishida ends up standing up to both of them, kicking Mochizuki.

That’s the story, but I’m not sure it’s the point. Like its companion, this story seems to run on vivid motifs and odd details more than plot. Flowers, of course: Ishida and Mochizuki both turn out to have a passing interest in ikebana, perhaps unusual for he-man manual laborers. Or the fact that Ishida and his wife, though certainly not well off, decide to spend one night a month in an expensive downtown hotel, a different one each time. Or the fact that Mochizuki reminds Ishida uncannily of his cousin back in Kyûshû.

The end result is a story that’s not quite as moving as the prize-winner, but still striking. It’s not quite as focused, perhaps, but the final scene, the brawl in the shower, really works, bringing together lots of tensions that have been gathering just under the surface of the story and then resolving them in a surprising, memorable way.